Love is the natural state of the universe, and love of God first and foremost, since, after all, God is love. This is a basic assumption of the Christian faith, and yet, loving isn’t easy for us. Most of us are, more of than we’d care to admit, counter-examples for this assumption about the world.
For most of us, love is a journey, a journey that begins with selfishness and ends, if we’re lucky, in understanding something of the expansive and unconditional love of God.
Because of the importance of the theme of love, I thought it would be smart to begin this Lenten series-within-a-series on the mystics with a reflection on love by the twelfth-century Benedictine monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux.* In what will be a common theme in mystical theology, St. Bernard develops a taxonomy through which he understands his topic, which each of his four types of love (which are not to be confused with C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves) building on each other in spiritual maturity, grace, and, well, love.
The first stage of love according to St Bernard is the selfish love of self. “Nature is so frail and weak,” he begins, “that it has to love itself first. This kind of love means loving oneself selfishly.” As perfunctory as this my seem at first glance, I think it is actually a beautiful idea. The love of self is so often viewed in Christian circles as the opposite of the love of God and the root of all sin. Our Scriptures simply assume this kind of love of self: “No one has ever hated his own body” (Eph. 5.29), and, of course, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mt. 22.37). And yet, we know in our own day that this love of self cannot be taken for granted. I know so many people who genuinely don’t even like themselves, let alone love themselves. But St. Bernard, I think insightfully, understands that it is a first and necessary step. As that guru of pop-wisdom RuPaul likes to say, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love anybody else?” (Can I get an AMEN in here?) St. Bernard is right, then, to mark this as the first step on the journey, insufficient on its own, but absolutely necessary in order to get anywhere.
At this first stage — and this is notable coming from a monk — indulging one’s appetites is permitted and maybe even helpful, provided one does not do so to excess or at the expense of others: “Cherish yourself as tenderly as you want, so long as you remember to show the same indulgence to your neighbor. This is the curb of temperance imposed on you by the law of life and conscience, to stop you following your own desires to destruction or becoming enslaved by passions which are the enemies of your true welfare.”
The second stage in St. Bernard’s schema is to love God for our own sake. At this stage we “know how little we can do by ourselves, and how much we can do with God’s help.” This is where gratitude begins, as we recognize that everything that we have — our health, our homes, the food on our table, our relationships — comes from God. Such gratitude is good, but it is still selfish to the extent that its scope is still the self: we love God only inasmuch as we are fed and housed.
But if we take this seriously, we can’t help but expand the scope of our love to loving God for who God is. Gratitude and love in response to what God has given us leads logically to gratitude and love for who God is. Thus, the third stage in love’s progress, loving God for God’s sake, comes swiftly on the heels of the second: “But when recurring troubles force us to turn to God for help, even a heart as hard as iron, as cold as marble, would be softened by the goodness of such a Savior, so that we love God not altogether selfishly, but also simply because he is God.”
This move may seem surprising — shouldn’t loving God for God’s sake be the final stage of learning perfect love? Not so, according to St. Bernard. In his perspective, it is the love of self for God’s sake that is the highest form of love. How can this be? And what might loving oneself selflessly even entail?
Of this final stage of love, Bernard says:
“When will this flesh and blood, this clay pot which is my soul’s tabernacle, reach that place? When will my soul, raptured with divine love and utterly self-forgetting, like a broken vessel, long only for God, and, joined to him, be one spirit with him? … I would consider anyone who experiences such rapture in this life to be blessed and holy. To lose yourself even for an instant, as if you were emptied and lost and swallowed up in God — this is not human love; it is heavenly.”
This love of self for God’s sake, then, is a self-forgetting love, singularly focused on God to the point of losing oneself into the greatness of God’s presence. But how is this self-forgetting an act of self-love? What St. Bernard seems to be saying is that this love loves the self simply because it wonderfully and fearfully made, because it sees and loves the image and likeness of God in which the self was created. Encountering the divine presence within oneself in this way allows us to be united to God in our own heart in a way that is in no way dependent on outward circumstances or conditions. This is pure mystical contemplation, allowing the self — refined of all desires of the ego and compulsions of the body — to become a theophany to itself.
To put the same idea in opposite terms, in loving ourselves in this way, we lose ourselves in God’s love for us. Regardless of which way we prefer to think of it, all that’s left is love; everything else is washed away in the presence of God:
“To reach this state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red—hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun—beams, seems not so much to be lit as to be light itself; so for those who are holy all human affections melt away by some incredible mutation into the will of God.”
Yet, lest we think this final stage of love comes as easily as the first three, St. Bernard quickly sets out to manage his readers’ expectations:
“I believe that in this life, we can never fully and perfectly obey the command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind.’ [Luke. 10.27] For down here the heart must be concerned with the body, and the soul must energize the flesh, and the strength must protect itself, and, by God’s favor, increase. This makes it impossible to give our whole being to God and yearn for nothing but his face, as long as we have to bend our plans and hopes to these fragile, sickly bodies of ours. So, the soul may hope to possess the fourth degree of love — or rather to be possessed by it — only when it has been clothed with that spiritual and immortal body which will be perfect, peaceful, lovely, and in everything wholly subjected to the Spirit. This degree no human effort can attain: it is in God’s power to give it to whomever he will.”
And so, anything of this fourth stage that we experience in this life is only a foretaste of what is expected in the age to come.
What do we make of this?
First, it’s interesting that love of others doesn’t fit easily into this schema. It’s not that he didn’t think of it, but that he saw it as part of the first three stages. When we love ourselves selfishly, we give to others as a way to curb our appetites. When we love God selfishly, our gratitude for what we have spurs us to love others. And when we love God for simply who God is, we are so filled with longing to be like God that we naturally act more lovingly ourselves. I’m sure how I think about this, since often loving others is hard work for us. It’s certainly something that needs further thought.
Second, the other week I noted how prevalent dualistic language was in mystical writing. St. Bernard — at least here — is better than some with this. He even approves of feeding the body’s appetites joyfully when we’re at the start of our journeys of love. His asceticism understands that food and the like are not bad but can trap us in attachment if we’re not careful with them. But this said, he still fundamentally sees embodied life as a hindrance to attaining the fullness of love. Our physical bodies are “fragile” and “sickly” and are what renders “it impossible to give our whole being to God.” I wonder, though, if we can read him against himself. For St. Bernard is perhaps most famous for his prayers and reflections on Jesus’ body. (Indeed, a prayer widely attributed to St. Bernard and printed in many Roman Catholic prayer books is a meditation on Jesus’ shoulder.) So his thought seems particularly apt for this kind of recasting in a less dualistic framework.
Jesus didn’t seem to think of his body as a source of weakness. Or, if he did, he did not consider this weakness as a hindrance to intimacy with God. He rested when he needed rest, he feasted and drank, and many of his miracles involved food. (And most of the others involved improving people’s quality of embodied life through physical healing.) At his Transfiguration, his body was revealed to be a perfect vessel overflowing with the presence and power of God. And he ascended into heaven with his body (transformed as it was by his resurrection), not leaving it behind.
The body and its needs certainly bring complication into the spiritual life. But it seems to me that the kind of selfless love of self that St. Bernard upholds as the truest form of love is particularly well-suited to an embodied re-interpretation. What if we take rest not as a sign of weakness, but as an opportunity to both express love for ourselves and to be with God? What if we eat and drink neither out of gluttony nor as a reluctant accommodation to bodily weakness, but as a means of communion with God? What if, even in pain and weakness, we can remember that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1.27) and that God’s “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9)?
I think this perspective, difficult as it may be to actually live out in practice, only serves to reinforce St. Bernard’s point that the self can become to our self a place of theophany, a place — the only place — where we experience and encounter love for God’s sake alone.
Moreover, this could be a transformative perspective in our current culture, where so many people hate their bodies. It offers a love of self, body included, that is not grounded in what we can do, how much we can make, how far we can go, how attractive we are to others, or how well we measure up to society’s ever-shifting and ever-tightening standards of beauty and excellence. It asks us to find a love of ourselves — bodies, souls, and spirits — simply because God made us, blesses us, and calls us “very good.”
Bernard’s slight dualism aside, I really appreciate this reflection on love. To put an integral lens on it, by making us think intentionally about how we are relating to ourselves and others, it expands our awareness and circle of empathy. And by offering a vision of egoless love of God and self it encourages us to grow beyond our fearful, anxious and grasping urges into acceptance and love of self, other, and God grounded entirely in trust, openness, and expansiveness.
Holy, Wholly Loving God, open the eyes of my heart to see you in all things and grant me the peace of heart and mind to love myself as you love me, without condition or restraint, and may I encounter your presence and love within my very body, soul, and spirit. Amen.
* The Four Loves by St Bernard of Clairvaux. From Public Domain material at Christian Classics Ethereal Library at www.ccel.org. Modernized and abridged by Stephen Tompkins. Translation available through the Christian History Institute: https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/bernard.